Your Turn: Mainstream Game Reviews

Posted by Andrew L {Avid Gamer} | 18-Feb-14 | 26 comments

Your Turn - A BoardGaming.com Discussion

Hey there, I’m Andrew; game industry professional, reviewer, gamer, fellow Boardgaming.com member and the host of BoardGaming.com’s discussion series called “Your Turn.”

This is your chance to let us know what YOU think about a variety of topics related to hobby gaming. I’ll start the conversation and then it’s “your turn” to chime in and add to the discussion. Each Your Turn discussion will have a new topic, and we may even have some special guests make a surprise visit down the road. In the meantime…

Mainstream Game Reviews

Reading mainstream game reviews makes me crazy…sometimes.

See, like most of you, I love to play games – any kind of game. And after I play I love to share my experience. Writing reviews is just an extension of that enjoyment. I do enjoy writing them very much. I think I may be unique in that, I review games most of the time to see if someone else will enjoy the game – even if I don’t. Not everyone does that. I feel it’s a big responsibility considering the number of folks it takes to make a game from concept to store shelf.

The hobby gaming community has grown by leaps and bound the past 10 years. Along with that growth has been a boom of just about anyone sharing their love of games on the inter-web. All this focus on the hobby is great. Well, mostly. Here are a few things that are important to me about mainstream game reviews:

1. Above all – numero uno

My pet peeve with reviews is they need to be written objectively with the idea that any one person’s opinion is just that; their opinion. A reviewer can be an authority on game mechanics, strategies, heck they can win every single game they play. But a reviewer can’t tell me what I would like. Instead they should tell me who would like the game. (Shameless plug) That’s what I like about BoardGaming.com reviews. If you’re a Power Gamer we don’t insult you for not liking Fluxx. Fluxx is probably not for you. Stay away.

2. Negative reviews

I cringe when I read a negative review. Maybe because I am a softy. In reality, most bad games don’t get produced. Manufacturers won’t take a risk like that. Which means that most games are at least …ok? Which also means, that a negative review is just another way of saying that the reviewer didn’t like that specific game. That’s not objective. I wish mainstream reviewers wouldn’t review games they don’t like. I feel that all the folks that worked on the game are being done a disservice. I’m not sure that the bad review will help gamers make a good choice, if that the reviewer’s intention. Their silence should say more than words.

3. Games they haven’t played

Reading the rule book and analyzing a game isn’t playing it. A game needs to be experienced with players and interaction. Reviewers can’t provide a real review without experiencing it the way it was meant to be played. If someone hasn’t played a game then it shouldn’t be reviewed. Sometimes, I can sort of tell that the reviewer is just walking through the gameplay and hasn’t really played.

4. Provide a good “How to Play” overview

I watch and read reviews to find out how to play mostly. Going back to #1, this will allow me to make my own decision on whether I will play or not. Reading rulebooks is fun to me, but watching someone play is awesome (Thanks Rodney Smith and family!).

5. Try not to compare one game to another

“It’s like Heroscape, Resistance and Dixit combined!” What? Unless we the readers have played all those games, the comparison will fall flat. It would be much more effective for reviewers to not rely on game comparisons so that a wider audience will understand what’s unique about the game.

The reviews I am talking about above are mainstream reviews for mass public consumption – not user reviews. User reviews are honest and unbiased because they are reviews of games the user own or played of their own volition. It bears mentioning that reviewers who are sent review copies have to review those games. They are obligated to. And I guess that may be where these issues above go awry. Time and attention span only allow someone to apply so much focus to each game.

Needless to say, I very much adhere to the philosophy of BoardGaming.com (Shameless plug #2!): there is a game for everyone. We try to provide a good overview and then say what we like about the game and make sure that we communicate who that game is right for. But in my case, I don’t presume to think to tell you what you should think. I think I’ll leave your thinking up to you. Deal?

Who are your favorite reviewers? How much does a review affect your decision to play/buy a game? What parts of a review affect your decisions the most (ie: game play, setup, components)? What parts of a review do you tend to skip over?

Your turn…

Comments (15)

Gamer Avatar
6
Spread the Word
Zealot

While I agree that negative reviews aren’t helpful, neither is omitting negative, factual information. If your game group really struggles with the rules because they’re unclear, or if a mechanic is clunky and takes a lot of time relative to its beneficial contributions to the game, I need to know that. If the game is a dead knock-off of another game (I’m looking at you, Knizia), at least let me know I’m going to find it a “been there, played that” experience. But don’t harsh on a game itself; or, conversely, post a review that just says “Great game, lots of fun.”

Gamer Avatar
9
USA
Platinum Supporter
Petroglyph
BoardGaming.com Beta 1.0 Tester

Excellent article… even though I differ in what I look for in reviews.

1. Above all – numero uno

Although I think this would be a ‘fair” way to review, I’m not certain it is as effective as it sounds. Not all games fall into a category. I’ve found games in almost every “category” that I’ve loved and despised. You are correct that no reviewer can know what I like…. but they can know what they like…

2. Negative reviews

… which leads me to number two. The only way a reviewer can be effective (IMO) is to be honest. Then, those of us reading their reviews can decide if their opinion syncs with ours. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I seek out reviewers with similar tastes… leading to a trust that can translate into a purchase… or not. I’ve even purchased games based on bad reviews… because I know a particular reviewer to be harsh on games that I like. Yes… I have grown to trust people who have different tastes than my own.

3. Games they haven’t played

I agree. This shouldn’t happen, but it does. Shame.

4. Provide a good “How to Play” overview

I think this is nice to have, but not always necessary. If a game is already well-known, or has a bunch of “how-to” articles out there… I’m more interested in the experience itself. How does it compare…

5. Try not to compare one game to another

…which leads me to number 5. I do extensive searches for comparison’s to games (movies, music, food, etc.) I love. Comparisons are an excellent way to explain an unknown quantity to someone (IMO). In fact… I’d go so far to say that it is nearly impossible to avoid using “comparative” language and be successful. You can try to avoid it, but once you start describing mechanics and theme, the reader will fill in the gaps themselves… “oh, that sounds like Carcassonne in space.” This can be effective too… but I prefer comparisons… unless the game defies them (awesome! but, rarely the case).

I don’t have a favorite reviewer, but find I can divulge a lot from reading and watching several reviewers whom I know their patterns of taste. I think we all have our own way.

Thanks for the read!

~Granny

Gamer Avatar
6
Pick a Favorite LGS
Robots on the Line fan
Miniature Painter
I play blue

For me it’s usually those final thoughts lower in a review that affect my decision the most about a game. The more I get to know the specific reviewer by viewing/reading their reviews, the better I understand where they’re coming from and how their thoughts apply to my preferences. In some reviews I feel like they start out just getting the review “requirements” out of the way, and then lower they finally share the stuff that really stood out to them.

Maybe I’m goofy, but I’m such a huge fan of great artwork and graphic design that if I see that in a game, I find I skip over the parts of reviews that talk about the nitty gritty of that game. I think it’s because I know that I’ll enjoy the game simply because I like looking at cool stuff and soaking everything in.

If a game is lacking in art and design, I know that it’s going to have to be really fun because it won’t “pull me in” as much visually, and in those cases I’ll spend more time looking at the gameplay, setup, etc.

I also find when looking at a specific game that I read and watch plenty of reviews, especially if it’s a possible purchase. I’ll go on youtube and watch some reviews and gameplay videos, I’ll hit some sites and read their reviews, and I’ll hit our site and look at the user reviews. Sometimes I have no intention of getting the game in the first place, I just enjoy learning about it 🙂

Gamer Avatar
8
Gamer - Level 8
USA
Gold Supporter

I guess maybe I’m weird. I tend to ONLY read negative reviews for games, especially if most of the ones I see are overwhelmingly positive. I take the ratings as the reviewers’ opinion – nothing more. No one should ever lie or “not review” a game they didn’t like simply because someone else might disagree.

It’s good for a game to have a mix of ratings because it shows people are being honest. No one is going to like every game, and I appreciate when someone takes the time to write about a game they hate. Especially in that case, because hey, maybe I’ll agree with them! It does me no good to figure out if a game is worth buying when all I see are “GREATEST GAME EVAR!” over and over. If I listened to those I’d own all the Settlers of Catan flavors and never, ever play them… but I digress. I agree with some of your points, but I completely disagree with #2.

Gamer Avatar
10
United Kingdom
Professional Reviewer
Crab Clan - Legend of the Five Rings
Book Lover

I disagree–negative reviews can be helpful. If a game is bad or if it has faults, the reviewer would be dishonest in not bringing them to the reader’s attention. He would also be dishonest in not explaining why the game is bad or why it has faults. That is his task in writing the review.

Gamer Avatar
9
USA
Platinum Supporter
Petroglyph
BoardGaming.com Beta 1.0 Tester

@Jim… That’s not goofy to me, as I am a graphic designer. I buy different games for different reasons. I have some ugly games that are just plain fun to play, and I have some thematic games that probably wouldn’t get played if they weren’t so darn fun to look at.

I’m glad I’m not the only one who reads negative reviews. I was starting to wonder if I was cracked. Well. I may still be cracked.

Gamer Avatar
5
Platinum Supporter
Thunderstone Fan

I also like to read negative reviews. I do that with other things I buy on Amazon, so I end up doing the same thing with games. I don’t like reading reviews of any kind for movies, though, unless I’m trying to decide whether the movie would be kid friendly.

I appreciate reviewers that try to maintain objectivity, and I think that is a great thing about your reviews, Andrew. I read “mainstream” game reviews to learn about the game, the mechanics, the contents, etc. but I read the user reviews for the brutal honesty. So, I actually prefer it when BG users write less about the specifics of the game play and more about their own experiences. Of course, when we don’t have a full review for the game on BG yet, I also appreciate when at least one BG user provides a detailed overview.

Gamer Avatar
7
Knight-errant
Cooperative Game Explorer
Amateur Advisor
Gamer - Level 6

There are a number of mainstream reviewers out there. A lot of them are really good at their job, and they care about the games that they play. I can’t say that I have a favorite that stands out, but I tend to like reviews that give an opinion on a game without trying actively to pull or push a reader/viewer away from a game. Personal experiences matter, as that’s ultimately what a game is about.

Negative reviews; it’s something I think about a lot. I’ve gone back over my reviews here on the sight and realized that I tend to have mostly positive reviews on everything, as I do enjoy a lot of the games that I play. I respect a lot of the time and effort that people put into making a game, and I realize that most to all of the games that are published have been tested for balance and game dynamics. It’s why I don’t ever say that a game shouldn’t be played; even with what I perceive as faults in a game, it still could and probably would be enjoyed by other people. But I’ll try and point out as much as possible about a game to give an informed decision. I also like reviews by people that do the same.

When it comes to reviews influencing me over which games to buy, I tend not to favor just one review as a sticking point. I read several reviews to get a good feel of what a game is about, and even then, it’s rare that I feel the need to purchase a particular game. Often, I will check out in the field and actually see games in play and participate in games myself before I decided if a game is a ‘must-have’ for me. As a result, I’m usually not the kid on the block that has the latest and greatest game to come out, but I will be able to see what I like and what I don’t like well in advance. But I will say that reviews that illustrate how a games new mechanics work are always interesting to me.

Gamer Avatar
8
Intermediate Reviewer
Copper Supporter
Viscount / Viscountess

About negative reviews: I like them as much as I like positive reviews because I want to know what are the problems with a game. That way I can feel safer to buy a game that I have not played yet. This is not to say that I would not buy a game because of a negative review, in fact I did buy several games because of negative reviews. I understand what the review did not like about the game but I did not care about that negative comment.

Gamer Avatar
9
Gamer - Level 8
Explorer - Level 5
Critic - Level 3
Junior

Negative reviews can be just as good as positives reviews if the reviewer can keep a reflected view on the game and what he/she feels the game is missing.

I’ve on more than one occation bought a game after a negative review because it was well written and made me realize this was a game I’d enjoy.

Gamer Avatar
8
United Kingdom
Advanced Reviewer
Knight-errant
Tinkerer

Wow, there I was, about to point out that a well written negative review can be the most valuable thing ever, and then I see that most of the comments so far are taking that stance.

Whatever a reviewer’s opinion of a game, if s/he can articulate the reasons for the opinion, then it’s a good and useful review. There have been a few occasions when I have seen or read a review which was largely full of the reviewer explaining the things that he didn’t like, and I have thought, yup, that’s the game for me. And similarly, some positive reviews have put me right off a game.

As for favourite reviewers, I am hooked on Shut Up & Sit Down, both their video reviews and their (all too rare) written reviews. Their output is highly entertaining, but also insightful and thoughtful. A lot of the time I disagree with their preferences, but their thoughts on what makes a game fun for them or not are always interesting.

Gamer Avatar
8
Legend of the Five Rings Fan
Advanced Reviewer
Tactician
Guardian Angel

If a review is well-written, or does a good job of highlighting specific qualities important to a potential buyer, then it doesn’t matter if the review is positive or negative. I’d rather understand why a reviewer likes or dislikes a game than know only that they liked it or disliked it, because that can be illustrative — as others have said, if I know what you disliked and why, it might spur me to check the game out if our tastes are different, or avoid the game if they are similar. I have some movie reviewers I read precisely for this reason; they are excellent at articulating the reasoning behind their opinions.

Gamer Avatar
8
I play purple
Football Fan
Movie Lover

I feel my review of River Dragons is a prime example of #5 as I compared it to Chinese Checkers, Robo Rally, & Mother Sheep. 🙂 I agree with @Granny – the best way for me to describe and associate the hundreds of games I’ve played is to have these analogies. Same with books, video games, clothes, and movies. Once in a while we get a game that doesn’t seem similar to anything – the good original pinnacle and bad, what-were-they-thinking types. I love Netflix’ ability to recommend movies based on my prior reviews. Games shouldn’t be that different (and this is something I’m developing for our local game library website at spielbound.org specifically to help people find other games they may like).

Gamer Avatar
6
Miniature Painter
Novice Reviewer
Knight-errant

If a reviewer never has anything bad to say about a game, then I don’t trust that he isn’t just a paid shill for the game company. I don’t know though what these “mainstream” reviews are though. I pretty much only watch the dice tower and read reviews here. Is dice tower mainstream?

I also do like comparisons of one game to another. If that is the entire body of your review, it does me no good. But if you say “it plays like X”, and I know X, and like/dislike X, then I have a valid base. If I don’t know X, well then hopefully they did a good job of explaining the rest of the game.

Gamer Avatar
8
Rosetta Stone
Football Fan
Explorer - Level 5
Junior

I generally like to avoid giving a bad review also. Sometimes I slip, and forget that it’s better to tell someone why you might LIKE a game, even if you mention things that intrigued you. But honestly, I can’t avoid giving a bad review if something about the game deserves it.

Let me clarify:
1. My review of Munchkin was off, and should probably be revised. I really, really don’t like Munchkin at all. But I know several people that do, and could probably find a way to highlight the positives without totally bashing it. That’s my bad, and in that way I agree with Andrew.

2. But my review of Heap is an example of where a bad review is warranted. I felt that I was fair and pointed out a few things that were fun about the game. Actually, the game itself was fun and entertaining right up until we found out what happens in the “final race.” I have a real problem with a mechanic that throws out the whole game, then starts everything over on the final turn.

Could I have been a bit more fair in my Heap review? Probably. But we had 4 players in the game and a few people watching, and the reaction to the final race rules was a resounding “What? That’s stupid!”

At any rate, I agree with Andrew’s rules with the caveat I listed here. I can only suggest games like Heap to people who can make up their own house rules, or people who don’t care about following rules.

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